Hansol Jung’s 2016 drama, set in a small, unnamed township in northern Uganda, opens with a church wedding — but it’s a decidedly nontraditional ceremony.
It’s New Year’s Eve 1999. And Chris (played by Kearstyn Keller), the daughter of white American missionaries, and Adiel (Adia Alli), a local girl orphaned by the conflict between the Ugandan government and Joseph Kony’s guerilla army of child soldiers, are deeply, giddily in love.
Just after midnight as the new millennium dawns, the teenagers meet at the rundown church Chris’s father serves as pastor. Like Romeo and Juliet, they plan to wed in secret, in a ceremony they self-officiate, speaking their vows into a tape recorder since there are no witnesses.
But the honeymoon is over almost before the brides can kiss. There’s apparently been little, if any, discussion of post-wedding plans.
Chris frantically insists the two should make a run for it, ditching her Evangelical parents and the general homophobia of Uganda. She has a vague plan to somehow get to Tunisia, more than 4,000 miles away.
But Adiel is unprepared to leave her home and family behind, despite the knowledge that she and her new spouse could never share a home there.
‘Cardboard Piano’ ★★★ When: Through March 17 Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets: $40–$54 Info: timelinetheatre.com Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
These discussions are tabled when Adiel and Chris get an unexpected visitor. Pika (Freedom Martin), a wounded rebel soldier a year or two younger than they are, bursts into the church waving a pistol and threatening its inhabitants.
Pika turns out to be seeking refuge himself. He has deserted his conscripted service, and the army could be in pursuit.
Adiel insists on treating the young soldier’s wounds, over protests from Chris. Soon enough, though, Chris is comforting the shell-shocked boy, telling him an intricate and highly specific story from her childhood that gives “Cardboard Piano” its name and also becomes a pivotal callback in the play’s second act.
Ah, did I mention that all of the copious plot to this point takes us only up to the middle of Act I?
Jung is an early-career playwright with an unusually global background. Born in South Korea, she spent part of her childhood in apartheid-era South Africa before her family returned home. She moved to the United States in her 20s and studied theater at Penn State and Yale.
Her work thus far feels equally eclectic and resistant to pigeonholing. Her one prior production in Chicago, Sideshow Theatre Company’s 2015 world premiere of “No More Sad Things,” was a whimsically structured story of an overwhelmed Ohio woman who goes to Hawaii on a whim. This fall, the Gift Theatre will stage Jung’s “Wolf Play,” a fable about a Korean boy (represented by a puppet) at the center of an American adoption tug-of-war between a man and a lesbian couple.
“Cardboard Piano” similarly defies easy classification. It wouldn’t be fair to Jung’s carefully meted-out script to reveal too much more about her plot. Suffice to say that following a jarring end to the first act, Act II jumps ahead 15 years and sees Chris revisiting the now handsomely rebuilt church, only to find new management in charge.
That the church’s new pastor, a Ugandan native named Paul (Kai A. Ealy), is rehearsing a sermon on the Good Samaritan as we return from intermission speaks strongly — maybe even a little heavy-handedly — to Jung’s overarching themes: What does it mean to do good? How do we decide which sins are forgivable? What actually is love?
Without spoiling too much about the events of the second act, I found it delivered emotional returns far beyond what I’d expected after a sloggy Act I. The first half of “Cardboard Piano” features a fair amount of repetitive and stilted dialogue and an unearned shock ending, as well as some suspect dramaturgy. (As a gay man not much older than Adiel and Chris, I found myself wondering how they came to such peace with their forbidden love in 1999 while living at the intersection of two deeply disapproving cultures — Evangelical Christianity and post-colonial Uganda — and with few role models available to them.)
But the groundwork that Jung lays, if a little too methodically, in the play’s first half leads to remarkable payoffs in the end.
At least, that’s the case in director Mechelle Moe’s intimate traverse staging at TimeLine. Keller struggles a bit to convey teenage Chris’s roller-coaster swerves in Act I. But she shows more confidence as the older, somewhat wiser version.
Alli, Ealy and especially the extraordinary Martin — who is a high school senior at ChiArts, the Chicago High School for the Arts, and feels like a real discovery — plink out graceful notes throughout.
Kris Vire is a freelance writer.